As the newly seated Walker County Board of Commissioners embarks on a new trajectory for the county, one of its major priorities will be continuing the process of ridding the county of millions of dollars in debt accumulated over the years.
The first regularly scheduled meeting of the full board is Jan. 14, but individual interviews before the fact showed that as a common focus area.
When Commission Chairman Shannon Whitfield first took office in 2017 as the county's Sole Commissioner, the county held over $70 million in debt. Over his first four years in office, that has been brought down to under $30 million, but there is still a ways to go.
"If we stay and keep these principles and practices [and] keep on the right track financially, we have the ability to be completely out of debt in four years and forever quit pushing this debt to the next generation," Whitfield said.
The county transitioned to a five-member board on Jan. 1. Residents voted to install the new form of government in 2018, after 60 years with there being only one elected official at the helm — likely seen as too much power coupled with a lack of transparency in the eyes of residents, especially following mounting budgetary concerns, said Whitfield.
He is now joined by District 2's Mark Askew, who was approved as vice chairman of the new board on Jan. 4; Robert Blakemore of District 1, Brian Hart of District 3 and Robert Stultz of District 4, who were all elected in November 2020.
Hart said he believes Whitfield has done a good job and that the additional board members can further help get the county in a better financial position.
"[One of my campaign platforms] was to continue Commissioner Whitfield's effort to pay down the debt that we have incurred from administrations previous to him," said Hart. "He's done a very good job and I want to see us continue to chip away at that until it's hopefully gone."
Other common goals among the new commissioners are to improve infrastructure such as roads and to provide transparency and accountability to residents and to each other as a board.
"With a Sole Commissioner, I think more can slip through the cracks because there is nobody to stop them per se, but with a board of commissioners, we're going to be five different people sitting on the board so it's going to be a little more transparent," Blakemore said. "Transparency is one of the big things for the board; and being a voice for the people, not for ourselves."
But, while they share collective aspirations, each board member has specific district constituents and concerns they said they also hope to prioritize during their terms.
As a member of the medical field, Stultz said his biggest priority will be helping the community get through COVID-19. He also hopes to address concerns about prescription drug misuse, as well as agriculture, a major facet of his district.
"I want to ensure that agriculture and farmers are not burdened by any restrictions that would hamper their livelihood or their farming heritage," he said. "I'm a big advocate for our farmers and our agriculture folks [and] I just want to ensure that they are not hampered by over-regulation of their industry."
For Blakemore, roads and transportation, especially in the Rossville area of his district, will be a large part of his focus while on the board.
"I think one of the main things is taking care of the roadways in Rossville [that] obviously need revitalization, so I'll be working hand in hand with the city to make that happen," he said. "The main thing is to rebuild the Road Department to give the people the services that they want."
With Hart's background working in county government and construction, he feels that resources should be allocated to help bring better jobs and wages to the county and to improve existing infrastructure.
" Infrastructure is not done when you build it," said Hart. "If you build a new road, you're not done with it; you have to maintain it. So we need programs in place to help us continue to maintain our infrastructure."
While Whitfield will continue overseeing the county government's day-to-day operations as chairman, going forward he said his biggest hope is that the board can build camaraderie and stick to their priorities to continue to improve the county.
"[I hope] we have a collaboration of working together, not against each other and to continue on the pathway of debt elimination," Whitfield said. "And that we make improvements to the services that we deliver, to the quality of life that we have in this community, to moving in a positive direction but also learning from the past mistakes and make sure that we don't repeat that history of past mistakes and improper financial management of our county."
Stultz believes the transition process will be aided by the personal relationships with one another the new commissioners had prior to being elected to the board.
"I think we're going into this personally knowing each other and knowing each other's strengths," he said when asked about the transition in December. "And moving forward, I think that's going to really improve our relationship in order to get things done for the county, because we all respect each other, and I feel as though the transition will be smooth and we can move forward for the betterment of the county."
Whitfield, Hart and Stultz were elected to serve four-year terms, while Askew and Blakemore will initially only serve for two years to put the county on an election schedule where two commissioners will be on the ballot every two years for full four-year terms.
The new board meets every other week, on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, at 7 p.m.
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